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The Teacher
By Michal Ben-Naftali
184 pp. Open Letter Books. $15.

This is the third book I’ve read from a highly acclaimed Israeli writer (David Grossman and Etgar Keret were the others) and the third one where I’ve been left wondering what all the hype was about. Is this nothing more than a translation issue, or is there something else at play?

Indeed, much of the writing in “The Teacher” I can only describe as scholarly, and not in a good way. It feels too often like I’m reading something by a writer of textbooks. They might have been great textbooks, it’s possible, but this author of textbooks would have been better off sticking to the technical stuff. 

The main character, the teacher of the title, is Elsa Weiss. She kills herself on the first page, but in the pages that flashback to when she was alive, we’re never allowed in. She’s intentionally written as a cold character — because she’s got secrets, you see — but even when we go back in time to the old Elsa, the pre-traumatized Elsa, I can’t say she’s any more likable. 

There’s just no warmth here. Wasn’t Elsa the name of the main character in that Disney film? Because she definitely feels “Frozen”. But there’s no singing here. Maybe that would have helped.

Unfortunately the writing is as cold as she is. Emotions are described, not felt, and the events are, I hate to say this when they’re based on tragically true events, made boring. 

Elsa is a passenger on the Kastner train. I didn’t know what that was, but I’ve now learned it was a WWII escape train from Nazi-occupied Hungary to Switzerland organized by the Hungarian-Jewish journalist Rudolf Kastner. The train transported 1,600 Jewish men, women, and children out of the grip of the Nazis to safety, but much controversy arose following the war when it was asked exactly who made it on this train.

Kastner had apparently sold spots on the train, for upwards of $1,500 a passenger, and included friends of his family and others. Survival’s all about connections, which is pretty much as true today as it was back then, but it’s made especially clear by this event. Kastner was charged with being a Nazi collaborator — I think that may have been going a bit too far, but what do I know — and ended up being assassinated in 1957.

That all sounds like the grounds for a pretty damn good novel, yes? It’s a pity then that the novel we get is “The Teacher”, which has all the makings of an Oscar-winning adaptation but reads more like a B-movie that would air on one of those cable channels that you probably forgot you had.

I remember in 1997 when “Titanic” came out how there was a flurry of movies around the same time looking to capitalize on its success. There was some made-for-TV thing, also about the Titanic, which was, of course, total crap. A pale imitation of the movie that was itself an imitation of the real thing. 

“The Teacher” feels like a pale imitation of a much better book on this subject. It’s that worst kind of novel — historical fiction that leaves you feeling cold about the important history it’s telling.

Ironically for a book about survivor’s guilt, you’ll feel a bit guilty just for having read the whole thing.

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